“I just feel like there’s a good chemistry on offense. The receivers and quarterback are playing at a very high level. Very efficient. J.T.’s efficiency was elite.”
After yet another explosive performance against Nebraska on Saturday, it seems that senior quarterback J.T. Barrett is playing the best football of his career at Ohio State--and that includes that time he led the Buckeyes to a berth in the College Football Playoff and finished fifth in the Heisman voting as a redshirt freshman.
There is no denying that Barrett had a rough patch that stretched from the conclusion of last season to this year’s Week 2 matchup with Oklahoma. Things began to unravel against Michigan, and flaws were fully exposed versus Clemson as the Buckeyes looked utterly ineffective on offense. This season, fans did not see the downfield passing against Indiana which was promised under the regime of Kevin Wilson, and problems finally culminated as Barrett went 19-for-35 for no touchdowns and a pick against Oklahoma.
But, like in 2014 after the Buckeyes’ loss to Virginia Tech, Barrett has rebounded in a big way. While it is apparent that the five opponents faced since Oklahoma have been varying degrees of inferior competition, what cannot be dismissed is the fact that Barrett has thrown for more than 1,300 yards, 18 touchdowns and no--as in zero--interceptions. Tack on four more rushing touchdowns, and Barrett looks like one of the best quarterbacks in the NCAA. In fact, he leads the country in total passing touchdowns with 21 on the season.
Still, doubters remain, pointing out that the sub-par competition cannot be denied, and that Barrett can’t perform when it counts against some of the best teams in the country. Now, after a bye week, however, the senior quarterback has a chance to right these wrongs as the second-ranked Nittany Lions come to Columbus. It will be the staunchest defense Ohio State has faced all season, and will give the revamped offense the spotlight they have been looking for to show just how far they have come since Oklahoma.
“Practice has been very competitive. That is how we have been able to put together performances like this.”
Like the offense, the Ohio State defense has made significant strides since its somewhat abysmal start to the season. Entering the year with a highly-touted defensive line, the loss of three starters in the secondary to the first round of the NFL Draft seemed something of an afterthought. However, after two games allowing more than 800 total yards passing, the Buckeyes’ defense found itself ranked dead last in the NCAA in passing yards allowed.
The only way to go was up at that point and, fortunately for the Buckeyes, they faced Army the following week. The Black Knights have now won two games this season without completing a single pass. Against the Buckeyes, Army had a relative passing frenzy, completing two passes for 19 yards. Still, it was better than what Ohio State had been allowing, and helped to improve the confidence of the young secondary. The Buckeyes continued to get better in this area, allowing 88 yards against UNLV, 92 against Rutgers and 16 against Maryland. The unit regressed against the Huskers Saturday, giving up 303 yards through the air, including two big passing plays, but the defense has found itself ranked 30th in the country in passing yards allowed--a huge improvement over just a few weeks ago. Credit not only good practice habits, but leaders on the units taking ownership for their improvement as a defense.
The Buckeyes are now set to face their most worthy adversary since Oklahoma in Penn State. With Heisman frontrunner Saquon Barkley at running back, and Trace McSorley at the helm, it will be a tough test for an improving defense. But with an experienced unit up front and a consistently-improving secondary, the Penn State offense itself may be facing its most staunch opponent of the season.
“We reflect back to 2014 quite a bit. But I think we’re getting our own identity, something that’s different than 2014. You hear Coach talking about great practices. I think that’s building our confidence to go out here on Saturday and play well.”
The Ohio State Buckeyes have experienced a very perceptible shift in their offensive performance over the past five games. While it is easy to believe that this team is the same one that lost to Oklahoma just a few short weeks ago, the players and coaches on offense think differently. This change is not simply the result of playing lesser opponents, nor is it something transient that can evaporate on a whim.
No, the changes that have occurred on the offensive side of the ball are the result of a shift in responsibility among the play callers. With Urban Meyer, Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day sharing responsibility in a coherent and methodical way. This structure is in sharp contrast to the 2015 and 2016 structures in which it often was not apparent who was actually in charge of calling plays on the field. The result was an offense that never really got off the ground, and a quarterback whose considerable skills were masked by a total lack of flow consistency coming from the coaching staff.
Now, Wilson and Day have revitalized the offense with new packages that fans haven’t seen before. Barrett does look different, and he is using his personnel much more wisely than he has in the past. The offensive line is dominating the front-seven of opposing defenses. Receivers have finally found a rhythm with their quarterback. The whole unit has upped its tempo, making it difficult for opposing defenses to get set with the right personnel on the field. And practices have become much smoother, contributing more and more to solid and consistent play on game day.
This type of sustained dominance looks a lot like the offense of 2014, which, even with the loss of Barrett to injury against Michigan, never stopped rolling behind Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones. The team seems to grow stronger each week and, with a balanced run-pass threat, could be one of the best offenses at Ohio State in recent memory.